Semester in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic becomes a hands-on experience

February 3, 2009Duke Law News

Feb. 3, 2009 — Students coming into the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic might expect to get their hands dirty in a legal sense — digging into issues, uncovering years of environmental neglect or abuse — but they probably don’t expect to do it literally. For Julia German ’09, however, a semester in the clinic became a hands-on experience in the local, sustainable agriculture movement.

When students were presented with project possibilities at the beginning of the semester, German jumped at the chance to work with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA). “I’m very interested in food and the health of the food that I eat,” she says. Her work with the CFSA involved researching two policies: the development of farm-to-school initiatives and reformation of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification requirements.

Farm-to-school initiatives aim to benefit both school children and personnel and local farms by providing fresh, produce-based lunch options in schools and educating school children on diet, food preparation, and where and how food is grown, German says. It also provides a stable market for small-scale, local farmers, many of whom are transitioning away from cash crops, such as tobacco, to sustainable methods of farming.

German’s GAP research focused on identifying the specific way that GAP requirements — a set of market-created and market-driven standards developed to protect against food contamination in industrial farm operations — limit sales markets for small scale farmers. “Not knowing anything about a farm, I had no idea in reading over these hundreds of regulations [pertaining to GAP certification] which ones were problematic,” she says. At a CFSA conference, German heard farmers say that they couldn’t meet GAP standards because they were impractical, but she gained true understanding only when she began volunteering for a local farm.

“I shop at the farmer’s market and I’ve seen the CFSA labels,” she says. “So I asked George O'Neal of Lil’ Farm one day, ‘Can I come out and help harvest?’” Not one to turn down free — and eager — labor, O'Neal consented and German has been helping most Fridays since early November.

“Going back over all of the GAP regulations, it was much clearer to me that some of them didn’t make sense,” she says. She offers hand washing as an example: GAP regulations require that proper hand washing facilities be available on site. On small, family farms, however, the sink-to-field proximity renders a separate, on-field station expensive and unnecessary.

German says the clinic experience has afforded her several skills that will prove useful as she begins her career at Foley and Lardner in Washington, D.C., after graduation. “One of the best skills I’ve picked up is identifying who the client is and what the client’s interests are when it’s not a clear-cut scenario,” she says. “The CFSA is a member of a coalition that is working on the development of policies and proposed legislation that pushes for broad goals in everybody's interest.

“It was really interesting for me to try to balance doing things the way CFSA, the client, wanted me to do them, and taking the advice of the other coalition members who really know more than I do about the effective approach to achieve CFSA's goals,” she says, adding that being able to listen carefully was also extremely helpful.

“It’s one thing to go back and revise the type of work that you do,” she says. “However, going into a meeting, being able to discern the complexity of interests and motivations represented, and then responding in a way that is non-threatening and beneficial for your client is a much different and invaluable skill set,” she says.

German will continue to work with the CFSA through the spring as a student in the Advanced Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, using her research to draft policy and legislative proposals. She calls the clinic experience “educational, in the sense of really being able to immerse myself in the community in a way that I like and is meaningful to me. And,” she adds, “I feel like the farmers that I’ve met see the clinic and the law as an avenue that they didn’t see before.”

Learning to play the “connector” role has been personally rewarding, as well. German’s family owns land in Person County that is maintained by a steward. After her hands-on clinic experience, she hopes that her family will be able to transition the land to more sustainable and organic practices.

“Being a part of this project has put me in touch with people who are so excited about that idea because land available for this kind of purpose is such a scarcity here,” she says. “I feel like I am really fortunate to be in this position.”